Not your average travel blog
Leaving over two hours later than scheduled, the “local” boat, as its referred to, took over eleven hours to carry us to Ruarwe at the north end of Lake Malawi. If Tom Jones were here, I’d be embarrassed to report that it’s not unusual (I promise the jokes don’t get any worse).
It may be a little harsh to criticise the small boat, but it isn’t the height of luxury…or speed. Sitting on whatever people have decided to transport that day, whether it be fish in recycled plastic sacks, firewood, sharp sheets of corrugated aluminium, travellers backpacks or just a few goats, you make yourself comfortable. The locals tend to sit with their wares under cover in the main seating area of the boat, but frankly, it’s crowded and gets hotter than the inside of a football players jock strap down there, so we take the roof….albeit directly in the African sun for the entire journey. Luckily today, people are transporting new mattresses to their village homes! Apart from our burning backs, soaking up the heat from the foamy sponge under us, it’s a relatively comfortable ride. The heat is quite intense, but our friends, Charlie and Rosa who own and run the only lakeshore lodge in Ruarwe are on the boat, and they’re sharing the contents of their cooler box with us. It’s a feast of salami, cheese, bread and, ravage my beard! Is that ice?! It’s freekin ice! And a few litres of juice! Due to the hangover we’ve sustained from our liquid indulgences in Nkata Bay, Bjorn’s best friends are swiftly becoming mine! Enduring the sun’s rays for eleven hours (which on your face, feels like air-loaded magma on a breeze of cacti needles) is managed by hiding under a lake-soaked towel and by gently chewing on some ice, occasionally rubbing some over your neck. Obviously, all is made worse by a hangover in the heat, but the sporadic breeze created by the boat’s dithering speed does help a little. I am grateful that I have never suffered from seasickness, although I wonder if this similar.
Lodge owners and villagers alike place orders via Chinese whispers and the odd text from rural locations. The boats bring nsima, beans, beer, chicken wire, mattresses, phone credit, mosquito nets, building materials and any other kind of bumf that people need to tick over. The “local” boat is typically over-filled with both supplies and people. It travels twice a week from village to village, the length of the lakeshore from Nkata Bay to Ruarwe. There are other local craft which also shuffle across the lake to Likoma and Chizamulu Islands, but more about those later. Prepped with a good stock of cooling aids, along with either some decent chat or some much needed sleep to catch up on, and it’s a beautiful and pleasant trip. However, comfort or any amount of efficiency each time the boat stops to load/unload is overwhelmingly frustrating. It’s why us westerners take the opportunity to jump in and cool off every time we pull into a bay! Here, the common phrase used by all is “THIS IS AFRICA”. The engine normally breaks down and someone inevitably falls overboard at least once on route (this time, it was our friend Charlie; nearly breaking his leg in the process). It’s worth having your valuables in a waterproof bag as there is no guarantee that they won’t end up either in the water that is sloshing around on the floor with bits of dead fish in it, or completely overboard. Most things however, stay very dry. It also isn’t unheard of that some items get unloaded by accident when the boat stops at the dozen or so beaches on route. Theft is NOT an obvious issue on the local boat, so if things do go missing, it was likely an accident and because you’ve been lackadaisical towards the ways of opportune locals. In truth, if things are stolen it’s more likely to be other tourists. I’ve travelled to many far flung places and where a community relies heavily on its tourism as an overwhelming source to survive, crime towards those tourists is normally not only hugely frowned upon, but dealt with quite severely by the locals themselves (sadly, people also seem to keep an eye on the natives more than light fingered travellers).
One could walk from Nkata Bay (roughly the midway point on the lake) to Ruarwe (north). It will take you about a week on the dusty track through various villages, and over and around rugged hillsides. Also once a week, the Ilala ferry runs up and down the entire lake with a few hundred people on it (more about that later, too).
While uncomfortable sitting atop the slow and slightly questionable craft, it’s hard not to reflect on the refugee influx currently happening in the Europe. There is nothing to compare whatsoever between the feelings I’m having on my heated boat ride and those of the asylum seekers in the Mediterranean Sea. It would be unsympathetic to even begin that thought process, but solely as far as a physical situation goes, far, far from “home”; I can’t help but wonder what the experiences must be of being similarly cramped in very unfamiliar and uncomfortable surroundings. Unlike the people smuggling themselves into Greece, I’m able to enjoy a boat ride which is completely overloaded and lacks any kind of western safety credentials. I have noticed that before discarding them on the beach on arrival, the majority of refugees are at least wearing life jackets, but harrowingly it hasn’t stopped many of them drowning on their fatal passage into Europe. Catching snippets of news as you pass through town or hearing nuggets of a conversation between some ‘fresh off the boat’ tourists, it’s hard not to connect and think about what’s happening in the western world. I’m well aware that the displaced people are enduring the total opposite of my fortunate discomfort. I am also barely a mile away from land on my entire boat journey – something I can be comforted by because although this boat floats, it isn’t strange that so many belongings (or people) end up in the drink. It’s a terrifying situation in the Mediterranean and one which we might assume synonymous with some dark accounts of people fleeing from a historically-ravaged, medieval citadel or maybe even from the depths of some deeply troubled third world country following a natural disaster today. However, as I peacefully amble on a lake through Southern Africa – somewhere that’s seen the most extreme circumstances of human capability – I’m contemplating the most current, most inexorable failure of humanitarianism on the doorstep back home.
Less than a couple of centuries ago, Lake Malawi was a colossal hive of slavery, pirating, genocide and bloody massacre. Short of the holocaust, it was part of arguably one of the most horrific periods that we humans have ever been accountable for. Here, the slavers at the time were the Persians. They worked the lake shores, pitting tribe against tribe and using them to round each other up on the promise of avoiding slavery themselves. I’m told of the lake being awash with blood and carcasses, people were stripped from their villages and dragged in bondage onto the dows that sailed them away. It’s impossible to imagine the horror. Amongst the human trade was the butchery and slaughter of hundreds of thousands of African creatures; collected and sold as trophies, trinkets, exotic pets and decorations. Globally, humans began trading in ivory, animal skins, precious African gem stones, exotic foods, rare species, every resource this rich landscape had to offer, and each other. In Southern and Western Africa it was a blood bath and an epicentre of colossal barbarism. The Victorian continent conjures horrors familiar to medieval savagery, mixed with Hollywood-twisted voodoo and tribal symbolism. It’s just wrong to assume that prior to foreigners coming along and corrupting the beauty and the wild of this part of the world, that it was a peaceful, idilic, simplistic farming landscape, living the rustic dream….but we certainly can’t take credit for improving things.
Unlike a lot of other African nationalities, Malawians were relatively happy to see the British and Europeans turn up. We fought to abolish the slave industry here, not start it, and this might go some way towards explaining and influencing why Malawi today has such a welcoming notion towards foreigners, particularly white Europeans.
With darkness already upon us well before arriving in Ruarwe, any hangovers have been left on the lake. The flickering lamps at (Charlie’s) Zulunkhuni Lodge are a welcoming sight. I have been here before in 2013 and little has changed. Tonight we will have a bed as well as all the luxuries that come with accommodation which has been ranked number one in Malawi by the backpacking community on TripAdvisor.com for a few years running. Zulunkhuni also manages to provide such luxury without having any electricity! It’s simple and off-grid, but it’s warming for the soul.
What awaits Matt, Charlie, Bjorn and I beyond a good nights sleep is a few days of adventure up the river which flows into the lake next to Charlie’s lodge; something Bjorn and Charlie have wanted to do for over seven years. We’re told by the locals that for a few reasons, beyond the illegal wood theft which occurs half a kilometre from the lakeshore, nobody has ever explored further up the valley of this river…